blog post / opinion

Science, Atheism, and Religious Freedom

The idea that only trained professionals have the right to speak out deserves to be thrashed.

by T.J. Nelson

blog post / opinion

L ast night I had a nightmare. I was at a meeting where a bunch of lawyers were talking about traffic light locations, stop signs, and traffic routing. After what seemed like an eternity they passed out some big sheets of paper with everyone's handwritten notes on them for discussion. The nightmare was so boring it woke me up.

This should tell you, in case you don't already know, what an incredibly dull person I am. Yet it makes a good point: a lot of tedious work goes into even the most poorly drafted statutes. Lawyers don't see words; they see a giant, complicated machine.

I have always envied the ability of lawyers to stay awake when doing stuff like that. Lawyers know a lot about the law, and like many professionals, they often assume that the giant machine they've built is the best that can be made, all things considered.

But sometimes it takes a stone-thrower from the outside to show that assumption to be ill-founded. I'm referring here to the case of Kim Davis, a county clerk who got a couple days in jail on contempt charges for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay people.

Lots of people said things like “she should do her job or quit” and “she should keep her religious views to herself.” One commentator, a radical atheist named Lawrence M Krauss, posed it as a hypothetical: what if someone's religion demanded that they behead their co-workers? But the article's main idea was this:

“Religious liberty should mean that no set of religious ideals are treated differently from other ideals. Laws should not be enacted whose sole purpose is to denigrate them, but, by the same token, the law shouldn't elevate them, either.“

I know very little about the law, but even I know it doesn't work that way. Law is just a formalized version of politics. Krauss was actually arguing the case for atheism, but the subtext was that scientific reasoning was a better tool than untutored religious dogma for resolving political questions.

Kevin Williamson at NRO tore into Krauss, who happens to be a physicist, saying in effect Krauss should shut the heck up and go back to doing physics.

Krauss's assertion that science > politics is hard to support, and there's a good case to make for learning about a topic before babbling about it. But if the argument is that no one should ever hold forth on a topic outside their formal area of expertise, I am afraid I would have to disagree with that as well. Williamson's argument is uncomfortably close to Krauss's; it almost looks like a battle to determine which set of experts gets to call the shots.

There are many reasons why that idea deserves to be thrashed.

For one, it would kill off the Internet, which is one of the few ways for average people, who are not necessarily professionals, to have their voice heard. For another, if scientists were to shut up about politics, pretty much the only ones left to speak will be those goofs at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists who can't even fix their perpetually broken clock. And let's not forget all those economists who tell us the oceans are going to explode unless we give half our GDP to developing countries. Climatology doesn't seem to be anybody's area of expertise.

Then there are respected philosophers like Thomas Nagel who argued in Mind and Cosmos that biology's failure to solve philosophy's mind-brain problem was evidence that Darwin's theory of evolution was all wrong. There are religious fundamentalists complaining about the Big Bang, and experts in transformational grammar and builders of self-exploding rockets expounding on the dangers of artificial intelligence. Should they shut the heck up too? Oh, sometimes I wish they would.

But the history of ideas shows that progress often comes when outsiders who aren't intimidated by entrenched authority give us radical, or even crazy ideas. We wouldn't be seeing all these learned discussions about birthright citizenship and the 14th Amendment if Donald Trump hadn't brought it up. It was outsiders who showed us that nutritionists had been intimidated for decades by entrenched elites, and cholesterol and saturated fat were not, in fact, bad for most people's health.

It turns out that the law recognizes that government employees are entitled to protection for their religious views at work. Law professor Eugene Volokh explained that the 1964 Civil Rights Act has an entire section devoted to what the government may or may not do with an employee who has a conflict between their religious beliefs and their job, the gist of it being that the government must accommodate him or her if it reasonably can, which is to say that if they show up with a scimitar and start hacking at their co-workers they could face disciplinary action.

Maybe even a bad performance review: “Develops and maintains smooth and effective working relationships with co-workers: Needs improvement”.

These legal experts might never have bothered to mention these facts if Kim Davis hadn't made it an issue.

There's a more fundamental question, though: how useful are laws if they're so complicated that the average person can't figure out what's legal, what's illegal, and why, and even our top commentators can't work them into their articles without putting their readers to sleep and thereby drowning the subscription department in cancellation requests? There's clearly a strong desire out there for the law to be based on simple, easy to understand principles of right and wrong, a yearning to get back to Hammurabi. And I think, deep down, that's part of what motivates the sentimental attraction that some progressives have for the third-world lifestyle.

It could be argued that the democratization of opinion afforded by the Internet amplifies the opinions of the untutored, just as democracy invariably leads to tawdry commercialization like that scrawny chick who discovered, purely by accident, that she could get rich by poking herself onstage with a foam rubber finger. But getting all aristocratic about it would just create class resentment. Perhaps we should see it as a target-rich environment for those who are looking for teaching moments—a source of guaranteed employment for mythbusters.

Radical atheism can't survive: its own philosophical sterility is its worst enemy. It's as sterile as political correctness, and it's as unconvincing as those religious people who believe quoting the Bible settles an argument. Maybe another message is: whoever moralizes the loudest, loses.

But thanks to the Internet, we're in the golden age of non-sequiturs. Example (from Krauss again):

“Whenever scientific claims are presented as unquestionable, they undermine science. Similarly, when religious actions or claims about sanctity can be made with impunity in our society, we undermine the very basis of modern secular democracy.“

That's typical of a lot of the new physics. But as a wise man once said: whenever someone uses a non sequitur, a little bunny screams in pain and dies.

See also:

Related Articles

Denying Biology
If biology is co-opted by the Left, our future could be written by ideologues.

Artificial intelligence is the new global warming
Is AI really as dangerous as Noam Chomsky, Alan Alda, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk seem to think? Get ooowwwt.

Book Reviews

Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False
by Thomas Nagel

Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom

sep 13, 2015; expanded and revised sep 16, 2015

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise